BETHLEHEM, West Bank - Tens of thousands of tourists and Christian pilgrims packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations Saturday, bringing warm holiday cheer to the traditional birthplace of Jesus on a raw, breezy and rainy night.
With turnout at its highest in more than a decade, proud Palestinian officials said they were praying that the celebrations would bring them closer to their dream of independence.
Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, fell onto hard times after the Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation broke out in late 2000. As the fighting has subsided in recent years, tourists have returned in large numbers.
By late night, the Israeli military, which controls movement in and out of town, said about 100,000 visitors, including foreigners and Arab Christians from Israel, had reached Bethlehem, up from 70,000 last year.
Thousands of Palestinians from inside West Bank also converged on the town.
"It's wonderful to be where Jesus was born," said Irma Goldsmith, 68, of Suffolk, Va. "I watch Christmas in Bethlehem each year on TV, but to be here in person is different."
After nightfall, a packed Manger Square, along with a 50-foot Christmas tree, was awash in Christmas lights, and the town took on a festival atmosphere.
Vendors hawked balloons and corn on the cob, bands played Christmas songs, and tourists packed cafes that are sleepy the rest of the year. As rain began falling, many people cleared out of the square and raced to nearby restaurants.
Festivities culminated with Midnight Mass at the Church of the Nativity, built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born.
Among the visitors were a surprisingly large number of veiled Muslim women with their families, out to enjoy an evening in what is normally a quiet town.
Israel turned over Bethlehem, on the southeastern outskirts of Jerusalem, to Palestinian civil control a few days before Christmas in 1995. Since then, residents have been celebrating the holiday regardless of their religion. The Christmas season is essential for Bethlehem's economy.